California’s 49ers made fortunes, just not by panning for gold

Time Before Now, February 1849Mexican-American War hero, General Zachary Taylor, was the president elect.  English author, Emily Brontë, one of the trio of literary Brontë sisters had died in Decmeber of tuberculosis at just 30. Her life cut short, she published only one novel “Wuthering Heights,”in 1847.  Set in the gloomy Yorkshire moors, it is regarded as a classic of English literature. And just in time for all those 49ers, San Francisco got its first post office at Clay and Pike Streets. (Left)

February 28, 1849

On this day, the SS Falcon arrived in San Fancisco.  It was the first of 17 steamers and 42 ships from around the world in just the next two months, disgorging more than 4,000 eager fortune hunters for the California gold fields.

American River gold camp, circa 1849

It was a spit in the ocean.  The next year, nearly 100,000 hopefuls from far-flung places had made the journey.  Gold seekers from New Zealand, China, Hawaii and Europe had flooded the port at the former village of Yerba Buena over long-established trade routes.  Americans, on the other hand, languished in Panama, dared the fates while circumventing Cape Horn or trekked across the continent by wagon train.

Assessing the risks was a bit of a toss-up. You could take your pick among contracting yellow fever in Central America, drowning off the coast of Antarctica and dying of cholera or misadventure somewhere in the Rockies.  

1850s era wagon train

About 25, 000 or 30,000 chose the latter, spending an average of five months on one of the various overland trails.  Another 40,000 or so chose the  sea-routes, either 17,000-miles around the Horn or waiting it out in Panama in hopes of a boat north.  And then there was always the threat of a steamship disaster, whichever you chose.  Hundreds lost their lives in storms, fires and explosions along the Pacific Coast between 1849 and 1856.

For those who made it, their prospects for getting rich varied.  Panning for gold, however, was perhaps the least lucrative.  Only a few of the first arrivals made money in the gold fields, another few broke even or showed modest profits but the vast majority left or died poorer than when they came.  The real fortunes wound up in the hands of the entrepreneurs. 

The first to get rich was California’s first millionaire, Samuel Brannon. (Right)  Publisher of San Francisco’s earliest newspaper, he alerted the world to the discovery of gold near his store in Sacramento.  He waited, however, until he’d bought up large chunks of land in the area and stocked up on gold pans and mining supplies.  While it may not have been illegal to withhold such sensational information from his reading public, he is suspected of using Mormon tithes he collected as seed money.

Brannon eventually disgraced himself, lost his fortune and spent most of the final years of his life in Mexico.  Made solvent again by the Mexican government for helping fight off an improbable French invasion, Brannon returned to California, paid his debts and died impoverished once again.

His wasn’t a unique “rags-to-riches-to- rags” story but some of the Gold Rush fortunes have lasted into modern times.  Levi Strauss made it big with his durable denim pants and Italian immigrant, Domenico Ghirardelli (left) got rich selling chocolates.

A young journalist, James McClatchy, (below) working for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune took  Greeley’s advice and went west.  He parlayed his Gold Rush reputation as a progressive champion of the people into a publishing empire.  Today the McClatchy Company includes 30 daily newspapers and a collection of 54 Pulitzer Prizes.

 Gold Rush largess was also instrumental in the building of America’s burgeoning transportation system.  The transcontinental railroad was fueled by four California merchants; Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker and Leland Stanford. Stanford (right) amassed his wealth as a grocery wholesaler.  He served as the state’s eighth governor and founded Pacific Life Insurance Company as well as Stanford University.  A conservationist and an advocate for education, his progressive bona fides, however, were badly tarnished by unattractive anti-Chinese sentiments.

Tentacles of the 49er era  have been woven into modern culture, as well.     Grist for hundreds of books and dozens of movies, David Belasco’s 1905 stage play, “The Girl of the Golden West” became a Pucinni opera and Clint Eastwood (left)  starred in the 1985 classic “Pale Rider.”   It grossed a record-setting $41 million at the box office.

The path to TV was more oblique. Joaquin Murrieta Carrillo (below) was either a folk hero or a murderous highway man, depending on your point of view.  Known as the “Robin Hood of the West,” he is considered by many the inspiration for author Johnston McCulley’s 1919 pulp fiction character in The Curse of Capistrano” named “Zorro.”

The era’s biggest losers were undoubtedly California’s indigenous population.  Dependent on traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyles, the infusion of thousands of emigrants and gold seekers along with the degradation of the environment, led to starvation and disease.  Those who were not left sick and starving, often became prey. (Right)  Conflicts with settlers and miners resulted in the death of between 10,000 and 16,000 Native Americans during three decades going forward from the Gold Rush. 

What historians can’t document is the actual cost of domestic disruption created by gold fever, but two we know about were Frank and Jesse James. Scion of the family, Robert S. James, was a Baptist minister and one of the founders of Liberty, Missouri’s William Jewel College.  Frank was just seven and Jesse yet unborn when the senior James (right) left for California to “preach and pan for gold.”  He died of cholera just weeks after arriving in Placerville.

His death left Jesse’s mother, Zerelda Elizabeth Cole James (below) virtually penniless.  According to inheritance laws at the time, she lost financial control of the couple’s farm, the stock and machinery auctioned off.  She was generously left with one milk cow since Jesse was still a baby.

Never a shrinking violet, Zerelda’s vehement pro-slavery sentiments may have been just as responsible for her outlaw sons as Robert’s defection. But her treatment as a widow at the hands of “Yankee bankers,” according to historians, was “not helpful.”  Depositors in the dozen banks the James gang robbed and families of dead victims, would doubtless agree. 

Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, Coloma, California, is home to two California Historical Landmarks, a monument to James Marshall discoverer of the first nugget and the spot he found it at Sutter’s Mill.  Much of the historic town of Coloma is within the confines of the 576 park acres. A number of features are currently closed, including museums, some historic buildings and group camp sites. 

Most outdoor day-use facilities and the Gold Discovery Tour are now open. Masks are required and day-use hours are 8 to 8 from Memorial Day through Labor Day, 8 to 5, November through February and 8 to 6, March, April and May.  Fees are $10 per vehicle, $9 for seniors.  For more information go to Gold Discovery State Historic Park, call Gold Discovery Museum and Visitor Center, 530-622-3470 or write Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, PO Box 265, Coloma, CA 95613.

Before planning a visit, go to the website listed above to find current information on hours, possible closures and health safety regulations for park use.    

© Text Only – 2021 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.